Tackle flexible plastic packaging now or risk missing UK Plastics Pact targets, urges WRAP

Urgent cross-sector action is required to develop a recycling system for soft flexible plastic packaging, like plastic bags and wrapping, according to WRAP.

The call to action comes as the sustainability not-for-profit, which leads The UK Plastics Pact, publishes a roadmap to galvanise action across the plastics supply chain: ‘Creating a Circular Economy for Flexible Plastic Packaging’. 

UK Plastics Pact members, who account for around 85% of plastic packaging on UK supermarket shelves, are working towards all plastic packaging being reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, and increasing the amount that gets recycled to 70%. But while flexible plastic constitutes a quarter of all UK consumer plastic packaging by weight, only 4% is currently recycled. Few local authorities collect flexible plastic, which is sometimes made from lots of different types of plastic and is therefore difficult to recycle.

Peter Maddox, Director of WRAP UK, said: “Developing a recycling system for flexible plastics is undoubtedly the biggest challenge that we and our UK Plastics Pact members face in order to meet the Pact’s targets by 2025.

“Citizens are frustrated by flexible plastics because our household bins are full of them, and they are a highly visible pollutant which are easily blown into waterways and hedgerows.

“Our starting point will always be to identify where our members can remove unnecessary plastic packaging. But where flexible plastic packaging serves an important purpose, such as preserving food or for hygiene reasons, it is imperative that we have the means to recycle it.

“This will require significant investment and innovation across the entire supply chain. It’s a tall order and we’re at the start of a challenging journey, but our members are fully behind the ambition we have set out in the roadmap, and together we are tackling it head on.”

The new roadmap sets out five key areas where efforts should be focussed in order to develop a circular economy for flexible plastics:

  • Simplifying the design of packaging so it is easier to recycle
  • Over the next few years, capitalising on the front of store collection points already provided by many supermarkets
  • In the long term, implementing collection directly from people’s houses across all local authority areas
  • Investing in sorting and reprocessing capacity and capabilities
  • Ensuring recycled flexible plastic packaging has strong and stable end markets.

Positive action is already underway, including recent developments in new recycling infrastructure. For example, UK Plastics Pact member Jayplas opened a new facility earlier this year which is capable of recycling 80,000 tonnes of plastic bags and wrappers per year. WRAP is expected to announce further developments of this nature soon.

Mike Maxwell, Operations Director at Jayplas, said: “Increasing UK infrastructure for the recycling of flexible plastics makes absolute sense for the environment and the economy. Through investing in new capacity we are preventing thousands of tonnes of plastics from being shipped abroad, which keeps that material in the UK economy and creates local jobs. There is still a lot more to be done to create a circular economy for flexible plastic packaging, but we are committed to leading the way and will continue to invest in this crucial area.”

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “Now more than ever, it is vital we push forwards in our efforts to clamp down on plastic waste and rely more on reusable and recyclable materials.

“We are bringing forward ground-breaking initiatives to deliver this, ranging from an extended producer responsibility scheme to a new world-leading tax for firms which produce or import plastic packaging that does not have at least 30 per cent recycled material.

“In combination with this roadmap, we can make positive steps forwards to create a more sustainable and environmentally friendly packaging industry.”

The Covid-19 pandemic may mean that some supermarkets have temporarily removed collection points, where people can normally take soft stretchy plastic bags and wrappers like frozen food bags, bread bags and toilet roll wrap. People are advised to check at their local supermarket.

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